WORSHIP: TO SOOTHE OR DISTURB?
By Dorothy Mathieson
Dr. Dorothy Mathieson's ministry has included being a Baptist pastor and the Australian Coordinator of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor.
Worship energizes us to be partners in kingdom truth, love, righteousness and justice
The worship was so polished. Meticulous musical precision. There was the lighter beginning, then the 'moving into a time of real worship'. Hands were raised, some were singing in tongues. The harmony was impeccable. The enthusiasm infectious. A couple gave 'words of prophecy' we are loved, we are emerging into freedom and joy like butterlies out of the cocoon of restriction and fear. Applause. 'God is pleased with our worship,' the pastor assured. More applause.
A suburban congregation, it could have been anywhere in Australia. Mostly middle class, well dressed, car in the carpark. Good people relieved to be in a 'live' church after labouring through stodgy ones.
'We come for the worship,' said one couple. 'You can endure a poor sermon if you have good worship.'
The short request in the bulletin from a local welfare agency for homes for rebellious teenagers drew no response. Another, asking for volunteers to care for people with AIDS, didn't even reach the bulletin.
The message was clear: worship was for soothing, comforting. Some refreshment for the weary. For the anxious, an assurance that things would be OK. We are right after all, secure from upheaval. God is biased in our favour.
It is nothing new for congregations to use worship to soothe. People did this in the days of Amos the prophet, eight centuries before Jesus came. In some ways modern worship songs have not changed since the songs of those days. The prophet recorded three popular hymns (4:13; 5:89; 9:56).
In these ancient hymns they too celebrated a God who:
* powerfully moulds the mountains as easily as a potter;
* creates the wind;
* reveals his very thoughts to us (4:13);
* faithfully upholds the proper order in creation: planets, day and night, tides (5:8);
* authoritatively invades all of his creation: heavens, earth, seas (9:56).
This is the wonderful Lord we also worship today: all the powerful, sovereign, majestic one. 'The Lord (Yahweh) is his name' is the declaration after all three of Amos' hymns. With the ancients, we join in applause.
But there are some aspects of the hymns of Amos' day which are rarely part of current worship in renewal churches. In these ancient hymns, God also:
* terrifyingly turns dawn into darkness;
* deliberately overpowers ('treads') all human attempts at arrogant independence ('high places' or 'strongholds' in Amos refer to prestigious fortresslike homes of the wealthy, the systems of selfindulgent and idolatrous worship at shrines at Bethel and Gilgal, the exploitative social, economic and political systems 4:13);
* reverses the natural order of creation so that it becomes a destructive power;
* shatters all seemingly impregnable and unjust systems (strongholds again) of the powerful (5:89);
* uses his glorious creative power to judge the earth so that it convulses like river tides;
* lets no one escape his consuming authority and power (9:56).
These things are difficult to sing about! This God is the mighty warrior, the purifying Lord, the indomitable creator. Few modern songs or hymns celebrate these aspects of our God. They would hardly fit into upbeat tempo or rousing worship. Worshippers would be hesitant to applaud certain judgement for ignoring the practice of justice.
Why then are the hymns of our day so soothing, so undisturbing. In this 'Age of Anxiety', as sociologist Hugh McKay (1993) labels contemporary times in Austrlia, we long for reassurance that things are alright, that our future will only get better.
But we will be secure, won't we? God is on our side. We have his promises. Our churches are streamlined. Our clergy have improving credentials and are friends of the wealthy and powerful. We go abroad to plant our kind of churches and export our kind of Christianity. We have so much to offer. We have hundreds of fully computerized plans to complete the Great Commission by the year 2000. Our nation is forging its independent destiny. Trading blocks are in place, hopefully to favour our market. The people of God are the righteous ones. Multiple prophecies have assured that out ministries will be extensive and commanding.
This is exactly what the Israelites of Amos' day thought. They assumed their political security perpetual, with neighbouring nations squabbling among themselves. Trading was increasingly to their advantage. Spiritually smug, they boasted increasing attendances at the shrines, with religious leaders having the ear of even the king. But they had domesticated God.
They had turned a loving relationship into a weapon of manipulation. Enjoying unexamined lives, enthusiastic worshippers were also supporters of a social, economic and political system which exploited the poor. They amassed wealth, storing it up in their strongholds for a brighter future, but they did not share with the needy.
Most of their resources were spent on themselves. Their righteousness had become a privatized ethic rather than a renewing spiritual energy directed towards creating an alternative community of love and dignity for all.
Amos longed for 'rivers of justice' (5:24). He saw only trickles of selfeffort, channelled into maintaining the Israelites' status quo. Triumphalistic prophecy fascinated them. Weren't they the people of God, with his covenant and his promises?
It sounds so hauntingly modern. Are the contemporary people of God, even those of us committed to renewal, so very different? 'The contemporary church,' says Walter Brueggemann (1978:11), 'is so enculturated to the ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.' Further he claims, 'if we gather around a static God who only guards the interests of the "haves", oppression cannot be far behind' (1978:18).
There can be no real worship, says Amos, without a commitment to justice for the poor. True worship must be expressed at the bleeding points of the world. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, rather than shutting out the world, leads us into discovering his heart for the despised, the exploited, the outcast. Even with the right words in their hymns the ancients missed it. They were not doing the justice they were singing about.
Many critics say these three hymns in Amos are out of place in his prophecy, perhaps later glosses interrupting the flow of his thought. At the heart of these challenges are not only the complications of textual analysis but also the misnomer of the purpose of worship. Worship is meant to disturb by renewing the fullness of our faith heritage, critiquing our present manipulations, and energizing to reembrace radical hope for the future.
Scholars are not alone in missing the point of worship in Amos and beyond Amos. In the so called discovery of worship in modern renewal, these vital elements have been largely over looked. Who wants to be disturbed? In the weariness of modern life, who wants to be energized to create something new?
Like Moses before him, Amos 'dismantles the religion of static triumphalism' (Brueggemann 1978:16). The freedom of the majestic God cannot be manipulated even by enthusiastic worship. Worship is not the flamboyant parading of self concerns, or of musical or oratorial abilities. 'You go to church to sin,' says Amos (4:4).
The songs of Amos are disturbingly in place. Prophecy cannot be separated from doxology. Worship is an act of freedom and justice. It is meant to disturb as well as energize. This is why Amos deliberately used popular hymns as part of his prophecy.
Let's look at these hymns in their context.
(1) 'This is the God you must prepare to meet,' says Amos (4:12), using the usual peistly call to worship before the first hymn (4:1314). They had ignored his acts of judgement which were supposed to restore them to loving relationships. The setting of this first hymn is of holy war. In worship, they come face to face with the God of such power and majesty that he is easily able to also judge even his own people. Worship truly, or prepare for combat with the Lord Almighty, says Amos. Enthusiastic worship offers no immunity.
(2) What is true worship? The second hymn of Amos (5:89) says it is responding to the God who acts in righteousness, even with his estranged people. 'We are zealous in our religion,' the people objected. 'But your own religious system allows you to turn justice into bitterness, to throw righteousness on the ground like refuse,' was Amos' reply (5:7). 'If God's covenant relationship relationship meant anything to you, it would be reflected in your lives of loving concern for others. That's worship. How can you sing this song and tamper ('turn') with God's plan of justice and righteousness for creation?'
'Look what I turn', says Yahweh. 'Darkness to dawn. I create. You destroy. But I also can destroy, particularly the exploitative systems of the powerful. Turn to me in true worship,' says the Lord. 'Then you won't trample on the poor, justify your indulgences as your needs (5:11), or remain quiet against injustice. Seek me, not your own systems. Your life depends on it,' says God (5"14).
(3) Later in Amos' prophecy comes the third hymn (9:56) after the disturbing threat that the awful stare of God, the warrior, is focussed on his people, for evil, not good (9:4). How could Amos call the people to sing after this? Again, as in the other two hymns, their worship is inappropriate. Worship can never fit with unexamined lives of privatized morality, bearing no responsibilities for the evils of their society. The message of this hymn becomes hauntingly clearer. Their God is now their warrior. He will judge his own people. When he touches the land, the awesome convulsions bring great misery (9:5). Nothing in earth or heaven can stand before him or hide from him. His control is complete. 'When you sing this hymn,' says Amos, 'you are singing about your own judgement, not only about the judgement of others.'
True worship disturbs. Modern songs mainly reassure and coddle complacencies.
Avoidance of the real issue of injustice is still ingrained in the church. The poor are suffering. On the basis of God's covenant, his relationship of love, they can rightfully expect his people, the righteous, to hear and respond to their cries (Proverbs 29:7). When God's people do this, they can truly worship.
Worship energizes us to be partners in kingdom truth, love, righteousness and justice. Worship renews loving relationship with our God who must be true to his character, unimpeded by our constrictions. Worship leads us to act for justice for the poor. Together we then celebrate the one in whom all rivers of justice are birthed.
Brueggemann, Walter (1978) The Prophteic Imagination. Fortress.
McKay, Hugh (1993) Reinventing Australia. Angus & Roberton.
(c) Renewal Journal #6 (1995:2), Brisbane, Australia, pp. 12-15.
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